Monday, July 31, 2006

Getting High In Iran

One thing I really like about Iran is that almost every town sits below its very own mountain (range) so that, of one were so inclined, all you need is a short bus or taxi ride and you can start heading off into beautiful countryside, clean air and lovely views. Many Iranians take advantage of this and so mountaineering is one of the most popular sports activities in the country, practised by both men and women alike as it is one of the few sports where hijab is not really much of a hindrance. I haven't really made full use of the fantastic mountains presented to me (only going to the mountains beside Tehran and Hamedan), but I made up for my lacunae by going for the mother of them all, Mount Damavand. At 5671m, not only is it the highest mountain in Iran and the Middle East, but it is also taller than any mountain in Europe (beating Mt Elbrus by some 40m). The dormant volcano sits head and shoulders above its surrounding Alborz range and holds a special place in the Iranian psyche, akin to Fuji for the Japanese and Olympus for the Greeks. Many important legends revolve around the mountain, for example it is the site of Arash the archer's heroic sacrifice and is also home to the mythical giant bird Simorgh.

So, on Saturday morning, after having suitably kitted myself out by borrowing gloves from my cousin, sunscreen from my aunt, a jacket from my mum and a last minute purchase of a walking stick from a sports shop (which would prove to be a very useful acquisition), I set off for the fabled mountain. Getting to the main base camp at 3000m of Gusfand Sara (living up to its name of Goat Gathering Place) was easy enough, involving various buses and share taxis. From there it was another 1100m to the second base camp. By the time I reached it I had a bit of a headache from the heavy backpack and altitude and was beginning to think that an acclimatisation climb, to get used to the thin air, beforehand would not have been such a bad idea. But I had the whole afternoon and night to sleep it off and try and get my body to work normally. Upon waking up the next morning at 4am I was feeling much better and was greeted by the sublime sight of seeing the fluffy cumulus clouds spread out below me like a warm, fluffy sea. I had joined up with a few other climbers, and together the eight of us (of whom 3 were women, and 3 had never been up before) at 5am to make the most of the good weather, which generally lasts until noon. What I lacked in experience, preparedness, equipment and skill I made up for with copious amounts of food: dried figs and mulberries, raisins, almonds, bread, cheese and a large tub of pasta salad comprising my armoury (causing one of my fellow-climbers to call me Mr. Supermarket). The going was painfully slow, though in hindsight it was probably a good thing as it lessened the strain on my circulatory system which, by 5000m was trying to tell me something when the altitude caused me to have an almost permanent head-rush. By 5400m a headache had also made itself at home in my skull. The going, however, was not in the least technical and relatively simple, except for the last couple of hundred metres where the going was through fine, volcanic ash that caused you to slip down a metre for every two climbed. But we were lucky with the weather which held, and though the wind was strong and kept whipping fine, gritty sand into our mouths, eyes and ears (I'm still dislodging some now, two days, and a shower, later), it was constant and bearable. Perhaps most fortunate of all was the fact that the noxious, sulphuric fumes that the dormant, but not quite dead, volcano constantly emits were relatively weak that day. We eventually reached the rim of the crater, lined by yellow and greenish sulphur rocks and were greeted, not by a sign saying "congratulations you've reached the top" or even one just stating the altitude, but instead, in a sheltered grotto, the first thing we saw was a macabre menagerie of freeze-dried sheep (and perhaps other animals, though I didn't bother checking too carefully) that had been overcome by the fumes and died on this desolate summit. After about 20 minutes on the summit the weather started to turn and decided to head down again. The ash that had made going so tough on the way up was perfect for what Iranians call shen eski, or sand skiing, whereby you take big leaps letting the sliding sand to carry you softly along. So the top part, which took over an hour to negotiate on the way up, was dismissed in under 5 minutes. Easy come, easy go I suppose. Upon returning to the camp many people were complaining of sore eyes from the fumes, but I didn't understand what they were talking about ... until I took out my contact lenses, which caused the sulphur to react with the water on my eyes and produce sulphuric acid. The condition is not helped when you wipe your eyes with fingers also covered in sulphur.

Despite the hardships of altitude, sore legs and sulphur (the first two being attributable to my complete lack of preparation which should be prerequisite for climbing such a high mountain that continues to claim lives of mountaineers every year) the buzz from reaching the summit was undeniably worth it, and has perhaps instilled in me a too-great a sense of ability in myself. So keep reading to see how and when I inevitably come crashing back to reality.

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